“Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
With these words etched in history, Joseph Welch, special counsel for the Army, triggered the “beginning of the end” for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his devastatingly cruel and damaging anti-communist crusade. McCarthy had risen to national prominence scaring the bejeebies out of Americans, emotionally raising the specter of “commies” hidden in every corner and under every table in our land.
By the sad end of his reign, thousands of lives had been needlessly ruined, thousands of careers trashed – but perhaps most important, Americans had been made to turn in on themselves. We were made to become a suspicious people, a mean-spirited people, an “assume the worst” in others, people. McCarthy debased us, and for a time, we acted as a debased nation. We lost our civility, our sense of justice, our empathy, balance, and good will.
McCarthyism was a terrible time in America and the scar still remains in the minds of those mindful of history. A demagogue, McCarthy was, and he had America convinced to do terrible things to one another.
“Have you left no sense of decency?”
After a hot back and forth, an exasperated Joseph Welch called out McCarthy for who he was. “Decency” replaced fear as our highest watch-word. “Decency” became what we had to return to. “Decency” toward one another had once been an American value and at that one special moment in a packed congressional court, we woke back up and started back down our national path to decency.
“Decency” itself, and decency toward one another, has been missing in presidential discourse and dialog from day one of Trump’s presidency. Replacing decency has been pettiness, self-aggrandizement, cruelty toward the weak and vulnerable, and an intentional toppling of our once dearly held norms of conduct and discourse.
Decency is sorely missing from the very person holding the highest office in the land. “Leadership by example” is fully discounted and ignored as America has been forced to normalize the mean-spirited, self-centered, impish behavior of our president. Imagine, that we must shelter our own children from the example our supreme leader shows.
Yet, with all that’s already transpired, this past weekend’s presidential behavior is shocking to a new, pathetic, internationally embarrassing low. After 50 New Zealand Muslim worshippers were gunned down by a white nationalist terrorist, our president failed even the basic requirements of decency to acknowledge that white nationalism is in fact a growing threat here and abroad. Instead, Mr. Trump turned to Twitter, taking aim again on John McCain and other personal enemies. After disparaging our deceased hero, McCain, then came a comedy show — as Saturday Night Live made Trump’s Twitter list, as did a host of other targets.
Trump did issue this Tweet acknowledging the shooting: “My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques. 49 innocent people have so senselessly died, with so many more seriously injured. The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do. God bless all!”
But other than that, Trump tweeted all weekend of pet peeves and perceived personal insults – and nothing of substance to speak against white supremism, white nationalism and domestic terrorism. Even as the New Zealand shooter in fact wrote that he regarded Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” Trump did not speak out. Instead Trump speaks words degrading and disrespecting people of color and – and words matter. Conduct matters. Standing for moral principles matters. And look what happens when the wrong person gets inspired by presidential hate words…
In the face of one of the most shocking terror assaults of our time, Trump tweets, “John McCain was last in his class.” Trump tweets that SNL should be “looked into” by the FCC. Barrages of petty tweets by the holder of the office that was once the pinnacle of example of conduct. The presidency has become pathetic — and even stupid.
By inspiring contrast, as Trump’s Twitterslog dragged on, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took to her nation’s and the world’s airways, demonstrating the greatest compassion, care for her people, and leadership we’ve witnessed in recent times.
Said Arden of the shooter, “He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety, and that is why you will never hear me mention his name. He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. And to others I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.”
Arden passionately led her nation’s stand against white nationalism. Then, she passionately developed plans to assist those tragically impacted.
Meanwhile, back home we got hate tweets.
In the face of the slaughter in New Zealand, common decency was finally and fully, drained from our American presidency. Trump was exposed as a vessel completely empty of decency and instead, filled to the brim with personal grievances, pettiness and self-dealing. Indeed, Trump reminded us last week he has, “Bikers for Trump” should things get rough…
As in the days of McCarthyism, some Americans have been carried away in the frenzy of anti-communism and in the process, have lost their way and our values. Today, in the mash-up of Trumpism, many Americans have rejected their long professed values and principles for the expediency of a tax cut or the promise of the resurgence of white prominence with the dog-whistle phrase – “Making America Great Again.”
We are now close to a “Have you no decency?” moment. Tides are turning. The public majority is close to rejecting, even vomiting the vileness Trump has had us swallow. Trump’s fall is coming, and those who bought into Trump, those who supported Trump, will be left with the same shame as the McCarthy crowd of bygone dark days.
They will have shame where decency should have always, unceasingly been.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006.